When Jon Strader was 17 years old, he was living at home with his parents in Galesburg, Illinois, across the river from Iowa. His best friend was Danny Saul. They had spent all summer driving around western Illinois, looking for British sports cars to buy. Parked in the Strader driveway was the family's 1968 Dodge Dart GT, along with a 1965 MGB and a Jaguar convertible, both Jon's. He was searching for his next one.
The year was 1971. He had inquired at nearly every gas station in the Midwest, looking for Jaguars, a fixation for him ever since he was 12 and his neighbor brought home a 1966 E-Type (Series 1 coupe, he recalled from across time and space, two--two, midnight blue with a grey interior) and it roared with "a song of the angels."
One weekend in particular, Strader drove to Mt. Pulaski, 100 miles southeast. He knocked on the door of Holmes and Son Garage, a clapboard and brick building that still stands on the southeast corner of the town square. Someone had told Strader this guy had some really cool cars; they might even be up for sale.
Fred Holmes grew up during the Great Depression; he'd served in World War II. He nearly threw the kid out. But Strader has always prided himself on his ability to make friends out of strangers, a skill he possessed even as a teen, and here, he put it to work: he pointed at a 1911 Buick, beautifully restored, and proceeded to demonstrate to Holmes that he knew the proper way to start it. Never wrap your thumb around the hand crank, he said, lest you break your arm. Holmes nodded approvingly, tersely. Fine, he seemed to decide, the boy can stick around. For now.
In a corner of the cramped shop sat a 1954 Jaguar XK120 roadster, blue on blue, looking worse for wear. "What does that sound like?" Strader asked.
Holmes glared at him.
Then, hell, he must have thought, humor the kid; he might know more than you think. He climbed in and fired up the Jaguar.
The whole building shook. The windows rattled in their wooden frames.
It was the "loudest, nastiest sounding Jag" Strader says he'd ever experienced. It was transcendent. It was the heavens opening up, it was God shouting down to Jonathan R. Strader. It was his destiny, a destiny already firmly set, reaffirming itself: it was a moment that "literally changed my life," he told me.
There was only one thing to do: Strader asked Holmes to give him a ride. "I don't give anyone rides in my cars," Holmes said.
"It would be an honor. I passed the test, didn't I?"
Holmes laughed. "Alright," he said, "help me get it out and we'll go for a ride."
They took it on a loop around the square, then reached a country two-lane. Holmes went through the four-speed. Again: transcendence, the heavens opening.
When they returned, there was one thing left to ask: "Mr. Holmes," said Strader, "will you sell me the blue Jag?"
Holmes looked at him as if he was insane. "Kid, listen—it's one of my favorite cars in my collection," he said, and besides, "where would you get that kind of money?"
"To say that I left Mt. Pulaski crestfallen and depressed would be an understatement," Strader told me. "I had found the car of my dreams, and it was not available."
To get to Mt. Pulaski from Galesburg, you take Interstate 74 East, then switch to I-155 South outside of Peoria, exit 126. The land opens up like a blanket and the fields seem endless. Drive like you're putting out a fire and you can make the trip in an hour and a half.
Once a month, for the next two years, Strader drove the hundred miles to Holmes' shop and performed chores for free. He swept the floors. He washed cars, changed oil. He never asked for a dime. He wanted to prove that he could take care of a car. Every time he was there, eventually the question would slip out of his mouth: "Is today the day?"
"What day is that?"
"The day you agree to sell me the blue Jaguar."
"No, Jon, today is not that day."
You may have heard this story before. You may have even told it yourself. Talk to anyone long enough at a car show, a weekend cruise-in, a hot rod national, and you'll hear all about the doe-eyed teenager, a cantankerous old man, a hidden treasure, the covetous feelings it inspired. How easily people's lives can change. How tempting to give in to fate. Across the backyards and garages of rural America, this story repeats itself again and again with misty-eyed nostalgia—just like it did that afternoon in Mt. Pulaski, population 1566.
On Saturday, March 19th, 1973, at seven o'clock in the morning, the phone rang. Strader answered; it was Holmes. If you bring me $2000 in cash before noon, he said, you can have the blue Jaguar. And he hung up.
Strader moved quickly. Just three weeks earlier, he had sold a 1950 Jaguar MkV Drop Head Coupe too stodgy and aristocratic for any teenager to own—for exactly $2000. In small-town Illinois on a Saturday morning in the 1970s, withdrawing that kind of cash from the bank was impossible. But Strader's father Richard was the vice president of the Savings and Loan down on Main Street; he had every key and alarm code. Strader talked his father into driving downtown and retrieving the $2000 from his account—around $11,000 in today's dollars. It was every cent to his name. He then roused his friend Danny Saul. They climbed into the Dart and raced the hundred miles to Mt. Pulaski. When they showed up, Holmes was standing outside, checking his watch. They were 15 minutes early.
Strader's blue obsession, Jaguar XK120 OTS SE chassis number 674794, was built at the Browns Lane, Coventry factory on January 22, 1954, the same year he was born. According to a tag still stapled beneath the passenger seat, a woman named Margaret trimmed the leather. A week after it rolled off the line, the car arrived at Hoffman Motor Cars in Manhattan, at the time the only US importer of Jaguars. While Frank Lloyd Wright was building Max Hoffman's dream showroom with an emphatic Jaguar motif, Strader's XK120 was delivered to Capital City Sales and Service in Springfield, Illinois; dealer Louis Wedge immediately put it to use as a race car. Two months later, on March 22, Fred Holmes headed 30 miles south from Mt. Pulaski and purchased it. He would drive it almost daily, and sell it to a young Strader 19 years later, nearly to the day.
The SE designation means this car left Coventry with Special Equipment "for competition purposes"—semi-metallic MINTEX brake linings, dual straight-pipe exhausts, a racing suspension with sway bars and larger front torsion bars, a racing clutch and lightweight flywheel. Most importantly, the spec included engine components designed for the Jaguar C-Type race car that won Le Mans: camshafts, valves, cylinder heads, dual SU carburetors, and 9:1 compression. The 1954 Jaguar salesman's handbook lists some of these parts as standard to the SE—but the rest you had to order yourself.
According to Fred Hammond at the Jaguar Heritage Trust, out of the 12,078 XK120s produced, just 23 were Special Equipment models with the vaunted 9:1-compression engine. Twelve were left-hand drive. Jaguar's heritage department is aware of six survivors, almost all in Europe. Strader's is the only one in the United States. Jaguar built just nine OTS (Open Two-Seater) SEs in 1954; number 674794 was the fourth. True to its name, the XK120 could reach 120 miles per hour, then the highest top speed of any factory automobile in the world. By Strader's estimates, his SE is developing 200 horsepower, 40 more than stock. With its half-a-Le Mans engine, Strader believes his car could hit 132 mph at 5500 RPM.
Strader's story could have ended here. A fun, folksy reminiscence about a beloved car and an unpaid apprenticeship, the kind that doesn't exist anymore. All the stock characters are here: precocious teenager and sympathetic father and gruff old codger. People move on. Cars get sold, crushed.
But no. If you have the means, you do not turn your back on what changes your life.
There is a crack in the passenger side windshield, near the top corner. In the early years of his ownership, Strader attempted to install wind wings, held on by screws, and he tightened one a little too far, cracking the pane. He never fixed it, a reminder to be careful. The right-front fender wears a sizable dent. Strader didn't fully secure the knockoff wire wheel one night. It was late, and he was tired. While driving home through the dark he heard a banging sound, then watched the wheel fly off into a cornfield. He eased the car onto the side of the road, only for it to get buried in mud. It took an hour and a half to find the wheel among the corn stalks. At the body shop, they told Strader the paint was too old and faded for an exact match, so he left it.
At the time, he was promoting rock concerts while working shifts as an orderly at the Galesburg State Research Hospital, a mental facility; he met his future wife Susan when they were both working in Ward D-12. "It was hard to tell who needed more mental and emotional care," Strader emailed me from his AOL account, presumably beaming, "the patients or the rock stars!"
For three months, Strader sent me dozens of emails. He had seen a photo of his XK120 in our gallery of highlights from the 2017 Quail Motorsports Gathering, and reached out to tell a complete stranger his stories. He shared with me his apprehensions over showing the car at the Quail. It had previously been rejected from the Pebble Beach and Amelia Island Concours. He didn't know how people would take it, its rough paintwork, its torn leather, its fender dent the size of a human leg. He sent me photos of him filling up the radiator, Danny Saul peering over his shoulder. On multiple occasions, he invited me to drive it, an offer I intend to take him up on. His enthusiasm brimmed for pages on end—he had no time to stop.
Here's another story. In April 1973, Strader entered the XK120 in the Nation's Capital Jaguar Owners Club's Concours d'Elegance in Washington, DC. Strader left Galesburg at 11 pm and drove the XK120 through the night, averaging 106 miles per hour, getting pulled over once outside Indianapolis, shooting flames until daybreak. At eight the next morning, he drove into the hotel parking garage, backfiring. There, Jaguar Club North America judge Fred Horner told Strader, "never sell this car. You will never see another one." Strader wouldn't enter the XK120 into another car show until 2017.
In January, a classic car insurance company issued via press release the result of a town hall discussion from Scottsdale, Arizona. A panel of silver-haired luminaries asked the brave question: will kids still want to drive in the coming age of this autonomous future?
The release quotes the CEO. "What I'm seeing," he said, "is the top of a lot of people's heads walking around looking at their phones. We've all seen it, we've all done it. It's very seldom you see someone not connected to their screen. I think there's going to be a backlash."
Surely you've heard that before. Surely we need to hear better narratives than that.
We know the baby boomers. We know everything about them, their hopes and dreams, their cultural values, what they hold dear; we know what it must have been like to grow up in those halcyon days, to casually acquire things that are now exploding in value. Things that are cool. Things worth having. We scroll through auction results on our phones and attend hot-rod cruise-ins and we hear these stories, and we struggle to frame them in our own terms; because we cannot predict our own futures, we have to frame ours by their past.
Half a century later our enthusiasm struggles with our realities. Vintage sports car ownership is alluring, but there are no more secret gems. Snatching up an extremely rare sports car, one with ties to a Le Mans legend, is about as easy and cheap as buying a helicopter. It is not the fear of interest but a lack of ability. What we covet today only gains in value. Who we compete against are memories of youth.
All we have, then, are stories.
At the 2017 Quail Motorsports Gathering, the XK120 sat parked on the lawn next to a 1952 Siata 300BC Sports Spider and a Zagato-bodied Lancia Appia. It was the only car there without a phalanx of assistants wiping down sparkling flanks with the finest in lambskin and terry cloths.
Walking the lawn, Sir Jackie Stewart pointed at the XK120's engine bay and said, it looks like it's had an engine fire.
Actually, replied Strader, it's had several. See, in winter the carburetors would leak, and if you didn't rev high enough, it would backfire through the carbs.
"Why did I not repaint and clean up the underside of the bonnet?" Strader asked me, rhetorically. Well, why didn't he replace the windshield crack? Why didn't he knock out that fender dent?
But Strader was nonchalant, perhaps even proud, when he surveyed the slings and arrows across his XK120's flanks. He answered his own question: "it is just part of the story now."
Strader is now retired in Littleton, Colorado; in his lifetime, he has sold houses, new cars, rock shows. He has owned "dozens and dozens" of Jaguar E-Types and XK120s. In 2010, Jon and Susan Strader accompanied a dozen XKSS, C-Type and D-Type race cars on a parade from the Pebble Beach Golf Course to the paddock at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca: it was "an incredible once in a lifetime chance. Unreal, unbelievable," he said. "For a true Jaguar nutcase like me, what could top that?"
The world changes, and the world stays the same. I am tired, I am worn down with covetousness. On the Internet I search for MGB GTs, Triumph TR6s, Austin-Healey Sprites. A former coworker of mine drove a bright-red MGA 1600 with color-matched hubcaps to work every day. Once I went for a ride with him. It was loud, it was awesome, it felt well-planted. I imagine my hair blowing in the wind.
I don't tell Strader any of this. But he knows that he's found a kindred spirit in me; why else would he have reached out to me in the first place?
He told a good story. Many stories, in fact—entire essays, to a stranger. Some of them are here. If automotive culture is to survive, then we need to tell these stories.
"You have to understand, Blake," Strader said. "This old, faded blue XK120 is far more to me than just a neat car. It has become a part of the story of my life."